Cycling into New York City, Via The Bronx

“This could be a complete disaster. Or it could be fun. Either way – let’s be ‘avin it.”

Wise words from younger sibling, Jonty, as he boarded a plane to join me in Boston at the start of the week. This is the sibling that deposited a brown coloured gift in the bath when I was 5 (true story) and the reason I slapped a 9 year old lad when I was 7 (I don’t condone violence in any form. Unless they call your brother “Specky four-eyes.” Then you get buck-wild on their ass).

Yes he’s 27. Yes he’s 6ft 3". Yes he’s far more sensible and grown up than I am. But he’s still my ‘little’ brother. And this week it was my task to guide him safely from Boston to NYC.

BEING A TWO

Having ridden alone for 3 months since Lydia left my side at Reno, it was strange to have company again. Contrary to expectation, when cycle touring with another, a real conversation is rare. You mostly develop a form of store-sign Tourette’s, uncontrollably shouting names of places you pass in odd accents. I have no idea why this happens. It’s a new-world phenomenon.

One thing that didn’t change was the level and frequency of singing. In fact, singing levels hit an all time high. For when riding with a partner, it is imperative that everything be expressed via the medium of song. Were you to buy the ‘East Coast Hits’ album from this week, you’d enjoy classic tracks such as – “I need a wee”, “My chuddies hurt”, “Where is Lockwood Avenue?” and “Can I turn right, at this Red light?” (Radio edit). Where I was once alone in these musical endeavours, not only did I now have a back-up singer, I also had a percussionist. It turns out that Jonty and I would do very well in a musical round of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Riding with a member of the opposite sex for a few days also proved rather educational. Too many times I’d set off and find myself alone 100 metres down the road. I’d look back and spot Jonty with his hands down his pants, rearranging ‘the furniture’. Apparently it’s all too easy to mount your bike in an excited leap and land on one of your testicles. Who knew?

CAPE COD AND THE WAMPANOAGS

Heading straight to NYC from Boston would have been a little too straightforward, so I decided to indulge in a cheeky side step onto Cape Cod. Here we stayed with Jim and family, and got to talking not about clams, or lobsters or cranberry farms (all things you might associate with the region), but instead we chatted Wampanoag. Wompa-who? Wompa-I’ll explain…

A key trip revelation has been the discovery of US Indian reservations. I knew they existed (I’ve watched Dances with Wolves after all), but I had no idea just how many there were, and how large. In Arizona I spent 2 days cycling through Navajo (Nava-ho) land, which spans over 24,000 square miles. The Cherokee, Sioux, Chippewa and Apache are just a few of the other tribes living on one of the 326 reservations across the US. These areas are ‘sovereign nations’. That is, they are countries within a country. They have their own laws and schools, and are governed and policed by separate political forces.

Spread throughout Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, are the homes of the Wampanoag (Wom-pa-nog) Indians. I was fascinated to learn that the spoken language of the Wampanoag died out 100 years ago, but one woman (with the aid of a linguistics degree from MIT) has been working since 1993 to revive it. She’s been successful, and although it’s now her 2nd language, it’s the mother tongue of her 10 year old daughter. Int that just wonderful?

THE ELI WHITNEY MUSEUM

Leaving the Cape and continuing South, we entered the town of New Haven – home to the prestigious Yale University. For those not yet old enough to walk the halls at an Ivy League School, the town offers an alternative – the Eli Whitney museum.

Upon entering, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t an ordinary children’s museum. It doesn’t follow the standard template – that is, brightly painted walls, carpeted floors and milk and cookies on offer at 3pm. Instead, it treats youngsters as miniature adults, providing a space in which they’re respectfully encouraged to learn under their own steam.

Founded by William Brown (trained in child development) and Sally Hill (trained in design) The Eli Whitney is founded on a notion of ‘essential experiments’. The discovery method, trial and error, it has many other names. Sally and Bill believe that you learn by doing, not watching. You screw things up. You get messy, noisy, break things, but eventually you find a solution. The individuality of experimentation is a central theme, and although classes are structured, there’s no set list of things you should and shouldn’t learn before you ‘grow up’.

It’s an incredibly unusual place – one that nurtures and indulges the naturally inquisitive mind of a child. It provides a platform from which kids can develop an understanding of how the world around them is put together, and plants the starter-seed for a lifetime of exploration.

Perhaps I was so struck by The Eli Whitney because this the way I’ve always liked to learn (just ask my Mum and Dad). Perhaps it’s because it bases itself on the very thing I tell anyone and everyone who asks me why I embarked on this trip. As children, we’re curious. We’re excitable. We’re willing to tell people what we want to be, to try in spite of everything else, to get messy and wind up in a right royal pickle. All too often something happens in adulthood that stops this process dead in it’s tracks. We let the belly of our fear-monster get fat with regret and missed opportunities, and above all, we stop asking questions. We stop believing that there’s a unique and individual solution to just about anything if we just … keep going.

RIDING INTO NEW YORK CITY

Full of inspiration, and with my inner-child rekindled, we left New Haven bound for New York. Riding into the city was …. unforgettable. I knew it was going to be ugly, I’d figured as much, and been warned on top of that. Still, it had to be done. So we rolled up our sleeves and waded headlong into the urban jungle.

Twenty miles out, North of the Bronx in New Rochelle, we got ‘stuck’ in a traffic jam. Quite an impressive feat when on a bike, non? Here commenced three hours of using every sense possible (including my sixth one) to avoid being run off the road. I didn’t take it personally. The swearing, honking and bumper dodging weren’t reserved solely for us after all – although I’d wager that we had more car doors opened in our faces than most.

The only way to describe the Northern Bronx is as an assault in the senses. It’s like a scene from The Fast and The Furious (one through six) collided with Tooting high street, in the midst of an M25 traffic jam. And I’ll make no bones about the fact that it made this white middle class chick feel a little uneasy. More because Jonty and I stood out like a sore thumb. And then because a man made a beeline for us at a traffic light just to say “you two be careful through here”. Fabulous.

We could have found another way in. We could have taken a ferry over to Long Island, and gone in via Queens. But who knows what different traffic treats lay in store that way. Plus, really, it’s just like mushrooms, Blue cheese, olives and frogs legs – you can’t say you don’t like something until you try it. I won’t be using my holiday to go back to The Bronx next year, but at least I’ve experienced it. Ain’t no regret in that.

So we took three and a half hours to ride the last 20 miles (a new record), but eventually we made it to Downtown. Jonty was safely delivered to his awaiting girlfriend, Kate, and so ended my duty as a big sister for the time being.

This is my 3rd visit to the city that never sleeps. I’m a huge fan of the crazy place and so excited to come back with a purpose. I’ll be seeing a few more touristy sites whilst here, visiting a local school and meeting the guys from Right to Play USA before rolling out again on Tuesday.

To you all from The Big Apple, farewell until next week.

McNuff out 🙂

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